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from The Fly Trap
Fredrik Sjöberg
Translated and introduced by Henning Koch

This article appeared in the 2006:2 issue.

Fredrik SjöbergThe Fly Trap is an autobiographical account of one man’s emotional and intellectual journey into the heart of entomology. Sjöberg accounts for his hoverfly obsession by drawing parallels with a number of universal human questions such as “What is a useful way of spending one’s time?” or “Why do we want to collect, categorize and specialize?” or even “What is the meaning of life?” Sjöberg withdrew from a hectic life as a props assistant at the National Theatre of Stockholm, and chose instead to devote himself to fly collecting. His reasons for so doing, and thoughts arising out of his choice are conveyed at times whimsically and throughout with great humour.
The featured excerpt below is the two opening chapters of the book, in which the author at first struggles to express his identity in a thespian world of glamour and meaningless gesture. In the second chapter he attempts a justification of the life-changing decision he has made. Why is it that his new life as a specialist of a “pointless” subject gives him such great pleasure?


CHAPTER 1: CURSE OF THE STARVING CLASS

In those times I used to roam the streets of Nybroplan in the evenings, carrying a lamb in my arms. I remember it so well. Spring had come. The air was dry, almost dusty, the evenings cool yet still fragrant with the afterglow of the day; the smell of earth and tender sun-warmed buds on the trees.

The lamb bleated disconsolately as I crossed Sibyllagatan. By day the creature was quartered with the King’s cosseted horses in the Royal Stables on Strandvägen, and we understood it must have felt similarly like a fish out of water during its theatrical performances in the evenings. I had no depth of understanding when it came to lambs, but one thing I could vouch for was the extreme youth of this one; it was possibly no more than a few weeks old. Playing the part of living metaphor on stage must have been a sore trial to it, particularly as the play (Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class) was violent and jarring at times and indigestible even for grown-ups. One hopes the poor animal must have steeled itself and tried to think of other things. But one thing it did excel at, beyond all expectations, was growth.

And so henceforth the problem was mine and mine alone. A vague combination of ambition and coincidence had resulted in a job in the art department at the National Theatre. In the last few years the duties of Property Assistant had been broadened to include keeping in order the various outlandish props of the productions, and thus it fell to me to traipse off before every performance to pick up the unhappy lamb at the Royal Stables. I suppose we must have looked quite sweet wandering through the spring evenings, me with the lamb in my arms. Once the curtain was raised the lamb (later known as “the sheep”) was supposed to stray aimlessly onto and occasionally off the stage, maintaining silence throughout and preferably not polluting the wings – all with the same precision as in any other set change. And in pitch darkness.

Before the première, during the rehearsals, we had thought of using a mechanical lamb, a woolly stuffed thing with a movable head and a built-in loudspeaker capable of delivering pretty, precisely timed bleating sounds at the press of a button. However, when the director finally saw the expensive robot, it took him no more than four seconds to dismiss the attempt as fruitless. Take it away. If it says “a live lamb” in the director’s notes then “a live lamb” there shall be – and no toys. And so the thing was decided. The lamb became my responsibility. Consequently by the time spring had set in I was beginning to question what I was really doing with my life, and why?

One might ask what a young entomologist was doing in the theatre in the first place. This is a troublesome question, and I take the view that it would be better not to delve too deeply into it. Anyway, all this happened rather a long time ago. Let us simply assume that this entomologist wanted to impress women. In that department entomologists have very little going for them. Or even better, let us agree that at times in our lives we have to flee almost blindly in order to avoid turning into clichéd copies of what the world expects. Maybe at such times we have drum up the courage to remember those foolish, grand thoughts that once made the child rise from his bed in the middle of the night and, with a racing heart, write down a secret promise for his life.

At any rate it was a racy, interesting job, quite engrossing for an out-of-towner. There is nothing quite like a large theatre in an unknown city to make one swallow one’s fear head-first. Nothing could be more intoxicating than all those dreams saturated into the very fabric of the walls. Of course there was a good deal I never understood: the dramaturges with their fancy footwork, the unspoken sub-textual meanings of the manuscripts, the nuances and finely crafted footnotes. None of this mattered to me at first.

Bergman was back from Munich and celebrations were afoot. Shakespeare paced thunderously across the boards of the big stage, and those of us who tiptoed on the light grid or in the wings learnt to transform every glimpse of the master into anecdotal evidence of his whims, his legendary magic. These flat tidbits later imbued the city’s bars, where they were constantly improved and dramatized, causing instant envy amongst listeners and focusing attention on the storyteller. Gogol steamed in like an armoured battle cruiser and Norén pulverized any remaining pockets of resistance among hardened audiences. Then came Strindberg, Molière, Chekhov. Perhaps in one sense I had more freedom than the other young stage hands, property masters, dressers, extras and personal assistants (with ill-defined job descriptions) who filled the theatre to the brim. Almost without exception they yearned to be famous actors at the centre of the spotlight, and these longings made them suffer exquisite pains at anyone else’s success, whilst struggling with the capricious trials of their stage school regime.

The work was rarely demanding. One stayed with a production from its first rehearsal to the last night. Initially the main thing was to build up an understanding with the director and above all the art director, the latter an art form in itself; then later to rehearse set changes with the ensemble and test the various props as they turned up from warehouses and workshops. By the time of the première, one usually knew everything off by heart.

But this play had something unusual about it. Not only was the unmanageable lamb a constant source of worry. The play was also culinary. By this, one means that food is cooked on stage. This can obviously be solved in a number of convenient ways, but some directors and art directors always promptly opt for the difficult solution. In other words, if food is going to be cooked you have to actually cook it. Cognac and pilsner can be simulated by apple juice, but food has to be the real thing. In this case, fried kidneys. The smell of fried kidneys apparently fills even a large space like an auditorium in no time at all, and this was thought to add to the authenticity of the piece.

When the lights faded between scenes, the property assistants ran onto the stage like silverfish on a bathroom floor, rearranging the furniture, clearing or laying the table, and carrying various bits on and off the stage – in this case items including a wheelbarrow, a smashed-up door and an indeterminate number of artichokes. During one of these pitch-black set changes, guided only by memory and tiny pieces of fluorescent tape stuck to the floor, we had to place raw kidneys in a frying pan on a range cooker of a kind deemed typical of an American country kitchen of the 1950’s. The number of seconds allotted for this was exacting and bordered on the impossible. As if this were not enough, there was another curious fact about Curse of the Starving Class, one might call it a technical consideration, which I suppose must be unique in Swedish theatre history.

In one of the more memorable scenes of the play the son of the family, Wesley (played by Peter Stormare), had to show his disdain for his younger sister’s dull-as-ditchwater life by urinating over some charts she had made at a scout meeting.

Hence the workshop had been assigned the task of making a device to simulate this, and shortly before the première we took delivery of a construction, ingenious in its simplicity, consisting of a hose and rubber bladder. The problem was that the director, at this emotionally charged turning point, had placed Peter Stormare at the front of the stage facing the audience, which gave rise to some concerns about credibility. And when the device also proved defective, leaking so badly that Wesley looked like a man plagued by brewer’s drip, the thing I had already started dreading came to pass. Stormare said: “Sod it, I’ll piss then!” And so it came to be.

In those days my artistic instincts were still fairly poorly developed, nonetheless I was deeply impressed by his remarkable gift. Night after night for months on end he lived up in this way to the writer’s intentions and the director’s fondness for cheap tricks, standing there on the stage without any self-consciousness, relieving himself just a few metres from the noses of the cultivated ladies in the front stalls. What mastery! That he would end up in Hollywood was clearly only ever a matter of time.

Where I would end up was more indistinct. However, because I was entrusted with the task of quickly mopping up after this notable display of the actor’s art, because I was the one who fell on my knees in the dark with a scouring brush in my hand, it grew increasingly clear to me that this was not the place for me.

I could easily exaggerate everything that happened back then – I could romanticize my longings and fears and only recall the occasional cue line. That is the nature of the thing, I know; furthermore it was spring and I was plagued by equal doses of confusion and love. Also, certain lines of dialogue seemed to have attached themselves to me like a rash. Not, perhaps, because they meant a great deal to me at the time, but because they chimed with something else.

When Wesley is standing there at the front of the stage making a beast of himself, and his mother Ella has just lamented the fact that he makes everything worse for his poor sister, he answers: “I’m not. I’m opening up new possibilities for her. Now she’ll have to do something else. It could change her whole direction in life. She’ll look back and remember the day her brother pissed all over her charts and see that day as a turning point in her life.”

This was in the first act. In the third act when the sister finally flees and fulfils his prediction, she cries out: “I’m gone. I’m gone! Never to return.”*

Those very words, spoken with the same rebelliousness as under the stage lights, were frequently uttered by me late at nights as I was returning to the stables with my woolly, bucolic friend. By late spring I no longer had the physical strength to carry the lamb, so I put it on a leash, like a dog of some breed unknown even to the residents of Östermalm. Old ladies stared long and hard at us, but we did not pay them any mind and we forged our plans in silence.

Just one year later I was living on the island with a girl who was sitting in the auditorium one night, and afterwards pronounced that she’d found the play both amusing and gripping and had felt herself sort of enveloped in a smell of wool, piss and fried kidneys. The year was 1985. I was 26 years old. The whole hoverfly thing was also just a question of time.


CHAPTER 2: ENTERING HOVERFLY SOCIETY

The theatre was my second breakout attempt from entomology. Aimless travel had preceded it. Of course I’m aware of how impoverished a subject must seem if it can only be approached from the perspective of flight. But I saw no other option, that is the only way I can put it.

No sensible human being and particularly no women are interested in flies – not as yet, at any rate. I always end up pleased at people’s lack of interest. The competition is hardly murderous. And in all honesty, what I always wanted was to be the best at something, not urinating in front of a live audience, my nerves were always far too weak for that, but something else, anything at all really. Soon it became obvious that my talents lay in the fly department.

There was a destiny there, one that had to be embraced as well as any other.

Speaking of which, hoverflies are really little more than props. No, not only, but to some extent. Parts of my story are actually about something else, exactly what is another matter. Some days I tell myself I’d like to say something about specialization and the ultimate happiness it brings. The interpretation of landscape. Other days are sadder by far. Mirrors everywhere, as if I were standing in line in the rain at the entrance to the nudist camp of all intellectual, confessional literature. Quite frozen blue.

However, in view of the fact that I live on an island and cannot claim to be an expert at anything except hoverflies, this will have to serve as our inauspicious starting point. Anyone who so wishes, perhaps out of a desire to be kind, might try to squeeze all this into a genre unknown within Swedish horizons, though once lovingly defined by husband and wife Ken and Vera Smith in their astounding book A Bibliography of the Entomology of the Smaller British Offshore Islands. It would be a difficult task, I fear, but it’s the thought that counts.

This book has pride of place in my library, which is substantial enough to withstand a Russian siege. It is a fairly thin volume, no more than a hundred pages, with a light-blue sleeve. I’m not sure whether it has taught me anything except that English people are mad; but merely seeing it, weighing it in my hand and reading its title never fails to lift my spirit and give me reassurance that I exist. The back sleeve relates how the authors met and fell in love while students at Keele University – that was in 1954 – and how later they began to study flies and collect literature about insects found on small islands. They are also shown in separate photographs and I can vouch for their sweetness. Ken, with his thinning hair, his three-piece suit and tie, seems to be hiding an ironic smile beneath his neat beard. Rosy-cheeked Vera looks as if she just woke up. Her thoughts seem to be elsewhere. One understands that he loves her.

The book is a long compendium, nothing else. An inventory of all known books and essays on the insect fauna of Great Britain’s coastal islands, from Jersey in the south to the Shetland Islands in the north. In excess of a thousand titles, all told.

What is it that these people have tried to capture? Something more than insects.

 

* * *

 

As ever, my artistic sense remained dormant and my past caught up with me once again. Whenever anyone enquired, I answered succinctly that hoverflies are docile creatures, easily collectible and appearing in many guises. Sometimes they do not even look like flies. Some resemble wasps, others are like honey-bees, parasitic wasps, gadflies or threadlike mosquitoes so vanishingly small that most normal people would never notice them at all. Many species are reminiscent of burly, brush-covered bumblebees, complete with a droning flight and grains of pollen lodged in their pelt. Only the connoisseur does not let himself be fooled; not many of us know these things. Those that do, live to a ripe old age.

None of this is hard to comprehend.

Even so the differences are significant, in fact much more so than the similarities. For instance, wasps and bumblebees and all other hymenopterans have four wings, whereas flies only have two. This is elementary. Of course one can rarely verify this with the naked eye, particularly as the flies easily achieve hundreds of wing-beats per second.

One of the scientists earning frequent mention in the entomological books which, soon enough, were filling our house on the island, was a Finn by name of Olavi Sotavalta, whose preoccupation in this world of ours was to investigate the speed at which insects beat their wings. He was particularly interested in biting midges, a species of irritating micro-insect which, as Sotavalta showed, is capable of reaching an astonishing speed of 1,046 wing-beats per second. Everything could be measured accurately in the laboratory using sophisticated instruments but, reputedly, it was Sotavalta’s wonderful musicality and perfect pitch that impacted decisively on his science. He could determine the wing speed of the insect by simply listening to its buzzing, and the beginnings of his fame lay in a renowned experiment in which he managed to customize a gnat and thus increase its wing speed beyond all known bounds of possibility. He warmed the gnat’s tiny body to a few degrees above its normal temperature, then trimmed its wings with a scalpel to reduce air resistance, thus raising the tiny bundle of life to speeds of 2,218 wing-beats per second. This took place during the war.

When I reflect upon Olavi Sotavalta, I see him lying on his back in a green sleeping bag somewhere in the northernmost parts of Finland, in the bright Arctic night, perhaps on the shore by Enare marsh, listening with an inward smile to billions of shrill, insubstantial notes from the universe.

But I was going to say something more about disguise, the art of looking like a bumblebee. Everyone understands the reason for it, the profit of so doing. Birds readily eat flies, but usually avoid hymenopterans equipped with stings – and so nature’s eternal arms race has formed legions of harmless flies into faithful copies of all manner of unpleasant creatures. Why hoverflies in particular should have become such masters of deception I do not know, but that is the long and short of it. With equal certainty I can describe a day with a clear-blue sky at the very height of summer, right at the beginning of my hoverfly-collecting days, as I stood watchfully by a flowering thicket of goutweed. There were insects everywhere: fritillaries, rose chafers, flower longhorns, bumblebees and flies of all descriptions. And there I was, in my shorts and sun-hat, ready with my retractable, short-hilt Czechoslovakian net, my mind filled with hedonistic musings about nothing in particular.

Suddenly a black missile came in from my right, about two metres above a stand of nettles. I had time to register it as a red-tailed bumblebee; then, for a fraction of a second I sensed a remarkable lightness in its flight. It was a mere nuance, hardly noticeable, but the suspicion triggered a reflex and I made a backhanded stroke with the net.

What I had captured became my ticket into hoverfly high society.

First let me describe the scene in more detail, let me take the whole thing from the beginning, starting with the insect hunt. We are all familiar with the prevalent image of the entomologist as a huffing, puffing fool sprinting over stock and stone in pursuit of hastily fleeing butterflies. Passing over the fact that this picture is not entirely accurate, I should add that it is utterly false when speaking of hoverfly collectors. We are a tranquil lot with a contemplative outlook; behaviourally speaking, we have what might be described as an aristocratic presence in the field. While running is not necessarily beneath us it is quite futile, as the flies are much too fast. Hence we stand motionless as if on guard duty, more or less exclusively in sheltered places awash with sunlight and plenty of sweet-scented flowers. Anyone passing by might easily form an impression of the hoverfly collector as a convalescent temporarily lost in meditation. There might be some truth in that.

There is nothing remarkable about the equipment, a net in one hand and a pooter in the other. The latter is a kind of suction device in the form of a short transparent tube made of glass fibre plugged with a cork at each end. A plastic pipe runs through one of the corks, and a tube about the length of one’s arm runs through the other. The pipe is carefully directed at sitting hoverflies, while the end of the tube is kept in one’s mouth. If one can get close enough without startling the hoverfly, a quick intake of breath is enough to suck it into the glass fibre tube. A piece of fine gauze in the cork at the back prevents the hoverfly from disappearing down one’s throat; inevitably, the user of the instrument is subject to endless, cheeky remarks calling his sanity into question. Believe me, I have heard every possible insinuation and witticism of this type. Experience has taught me that the only thing to silence the jeering observer is an unexpected demonstration of the third element of the equipment – the poison glass.

With the airy assurance of a man of the world, I haul it out of my pocket and blurt out quite truthfully that here in my hand I have enough potassium cyanide to send everyone on the island to sleep – permanently. All the cheap jibes are then instantly transformed into respectful questions about how the hell one gets hold of something like that, a fact I never reveal to anyone. Many connoisseurs use acetic ether, others rely on chloroform, but I prefer cyanide. It’s more effective.

There are almost three hundred people living on the island.

 

* * *

 

The big, black fly thrashed, then died abruptly in the toxic fumes. Because this was my first season of hoverfly collecting (by this time we had been living on the island for ten years) I did not immediately know what I had caught. There was no doubt about the fact that I had caught a hoverfly – even a beginner can learn to tell the difference in a few days – but only later, sitting at the microscope between tottering piles of books with titles such as British Hoverflies, Danmarks svirrefluer and Biologie der Schwebfliegen Deutschlands, did I realize I had caught a rare specimen of Criorhina ranunculi.

The very next day the island was visited for the first time by the country’s foremost living expert on Syrphidae, the hoverfly family. At first he scrutinized my trophy with scepticism, but soon he lit up, quizzed me in detail about where I had caught it, congratulated me, then over coffee told me the following story.

Of all of Sweden’s hoverflies, Criorhina ranunculi is not only one of the biggest and most beautiful, it is also so rare that at the beginning of the 1990s it was decided to catalogue it as “extinct” in Sweden. At that point it had not been seen for sixty years. The total number of specimens caught in the country amounted to three; two in Östergötland and one in Småland.

My new-won friend made a dramatic pause and splashed some milk into his coffee. The swifts screamed, the great northern diver fished off the jetty and in the distance one could hear the taxi boats plying the sound dividing the island from the mainland. It was a boiling hot day in July.

The first time the species was encountered was in Gusum in 1874. The owner of the net was none other than Peter Wahlberg, the very same man who after the dramatic events of 1848 took over from Berzelius as Permanent Secretary at the Royal Academy of Science. After a long life in the service of science as a botanist and professor of material medica at the Karolinska Institute, he finally alighted upon hoverflies, which seems logical and reasonable to me, particularly when one considers his involvement in the establishment of the now defunct Society for the Dissemination of Useful Knowledge. I assume he was a happy man; his portrait in the encyclopedia seems to imply so. His younger brother, on the other hand, looks mostly angry as if suffering from toothache or poor finances. His name was Johan Wahlberg and he was an adventurous type, known to posterity as an Africa traveller, big game hunter and maniacal trophy collector killed prematurely in a scrap with an elephant.

The next time Criorhina ranunculi turned up was in Korsberga, in the uplands of Småland. The year was 1928, and the collector was Daniel Gaunitz. Four years later his brother Sven caught another specimen in Borensberg, and later penned a number of educational essays such as The Billy Goat of Mariefred and more notably Cow Profiles from Åtvidaberg. There was a third brother too, named Carl Bertil. They were from Sorsele. They all wrote books, mainly about insects.

After the Borensberg find, Criorhina ranunculi was not seen again for a generation, until the man opposite me managed to lay his hands on two specimens west of Stockholm. Nonetheless, my hoverfly was only the fifth Criorhina ranunculi ever caught in Sweden. My first triumph. Since then, I (and others too) have seen it on a number of occasions, either because it has grown more common or, more likely, because we have come to understand the flowers it likes to loiter around and the particular kinds of deciduous trees, blighted with rot, that its larvae prefer not to do without; and, of course, how to distinguish it from a red-tailed bumblebee.

The real difficulty was in conveying my happiness to those who were not in the know.

In his novella The Man Who Loved Islands, D. H. Lawrence writes:

“The years were blending into a soft mist, from which nothing obtruded. Spring came. There was never a primrose on his island, but he found a winter-aconite. There were two little sprayed bushes of blackthorn, and some wind-flowers. He began to make a list of the flowers on his islet, and that was absorbing. He noted a wild currant bush, and watched for the elder flowers on a stunted little tree, then for the first yellow rags of the broom, and wild roses. Bladder campion, orchids, stitchwort, celandine, he was prouder of them than if they had been people on his island. When he came across the golden saxifrage, so inconspicuous in a damp corner, he crouched over it in a trance, he knew not for how long, looking at it. Yet it was nothing to look at. As the widow’s daughter found, when he showed it to her.”*

* Quoted from D. H. Lawrence: Selected Short Stories. Penguin Books (1982).